‘Miami Beach, Kentucky’ by James Hall

I’m glad to be reunited with a copy of this book, which I got at the Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon as a teenager. At that point, I hadn’t read anything like it, and continued to think about it off and on through the years. While I was a reporter at the Times of India in Mumbai in the mid-2000s I Googled James Hall and found only a website for a thriller writer based in Miami. I emailed to ask if he was also the author of Paper Products, telling him how much I’d loved the book, and he said that he was, but that he’d moved on to writing detective fiction because there was no way of making a living from literary stories. Anyway, I like these stories. In ‘Miami Beach, Kentucky’, which is set in a town called Sinking Fork, Kentucky, the teenage narrator’s father, Mean Buck, is the town mayor and owns the radio station. Mean Buck’s best friend is a rather unreliable writer called Thornton Blanding, and the narrator’s mother, Billie Butterworth, is a school teacher. Mean Buck, perhaps abetted by Thornton Blanding, decides that the latest improvement scheme that Sinking Fork could use is to change its name to Miami Beach, and begins to speak about it on the radio early in the morning:

“Miami Beach, Kentucky,” he said, wooing us all, all in our beds, all of us half-dazed from dreaming. “Miami Beach, Kentucky,” he whispered. “We can make our town anything we got the gumption to imagine” […] Then he went on about palm trees and ferns and lobsters and crabs and egrets and laughing gulls, sandpipers and marlin, dolphin, sailfish, red snapper, sea turtles, tarpon.

A collective delusion falls over Sinking Fork, inhabitants lying out in the “halfhearted sunshine” oiling themselves, wearing Hawaiian shirts to school, or painting their houses pink… 

First published in The Iowa Review, Winter 1984; collected in Paper Products, WW Norton, 1990/Minerva, 1991

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